Wednesday night I’m joining several local Jews in their 20s and 30s to speak on a panel at Temple of Aaron called “The Future of Judaism: Told from the 20’s/30’s Perspective.”
To tell you the truth, I’m sort of nervous about it. I need your help.
The premise of the night is that we’re going to watch the award-winning film “The Tribe,” which simultaneously traces the history of the Barbie doll and the history of Judaism to discuss the questions: What does it mean to be an American Jew today? and What does it mean to be a member of any tribe in the 21st Century?
I don’t know if I have an answer to those questions so I wanted to throw a few out to you, and then I can bring your voices with me onto the bima at Temple of Aaron to answer these questions for an audience that I’m sure is mostly sure to be folks in their 50s, 60s and 70s.
A Few Questions to Get Us Started…
- What’s the difference between being a Jew in your 20s or 30s and being a Jew in your 40s? Aren’t we all searching for the same thing?
- Are today’s young Jews any different than our parents’ generation when they were our age?
- What the hell does Barbie have to do with me? (other than the fact that she was created by a Jewish woman)
- What is the organized Jewish community doing wrong and right to reach out to Jews in their 20s and 30s?
- What would get you – a Jew in your 20s/30s – to step into a synagogue? (and if you say “an event like this” that’s awesome, and come say hi to me during the reception before the event)
- Is there a future for Judaism? (scary question, possibly)
- By not welcoming interfaith marriages with open arms (where the parents want to raise their kids Jewish), are we as a religion isolating a huge chunk of the next generation of Jews, and perhaps pushing them away for good?
Well that’s a start – any thoughts?
BTW – shameless plug – it would be really cool if in addition to writing your thoughts, some of you came to the event (co-sponsored by the UJFC Young Leadership and Temple of Aaron) and shared your thoughts in person. Just sayin’.
(Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/migrainechick/ / CC BY 2.0)
Oh, what the heck — I’ll jump in; can’t stand silence when interesting questions are being asked.
1. One difference immediately jumps to mind — children. Most of us in our 20s aren’t parents, and most 40-somethings are (I don’t know the stats on 30-somethings). Extrapolating from myself and my friends, I’d say that a young Jew’s interest in Judaism upon becoming a parent would grow by at least this — an interest in Jewish education for children. And, for some, more interests stem from that.
2. If your parents are boomers, yes. We are less political, and less committed to left-liberalism if we are. We are less secular — more interested in, if not religion, then spirituality.
3. Beats me.
4. I’ll be impolitic here. My impression — admittedly, as an infrequent synagogue-goer — is that more congregants in your average non-Orthodox congregation are there for social than religious reasons, more for affiliation than for faith. Insofar as young people tend to be more idealistic, I think that turns us off. Also, I think young people now perceive less need for being officially affiliated.
5. Yom Kippur. But not if I have to pay. (I’m _not_ saying that I shouldn’t have to pay; I realize that synagogue seats, like any other resource, are scarce. But money is a factor for me.)
6. I think that the future of Judaism, provided the continued flourishing of Israel, is relatively bright. But I also think that, if recent trends continue, the future of non-Orthodox Judaism in the U.S. is uncertain, at best.
Why? In a word — intermarriage. Now, I realize that it’s more a symptom than a cause, and I realize that there are other symptoms and causes. But this one is the most obvious (or at least the best-documented). Half of all American Jews intermarry. And, since intermarriage is extremely rare among the Orthodox (who are a relatively small but still significant part of American Jewry), that means that a non-Orthodox American Jew is more likely to marry a gentile than a fellow Jew.
From there, it’s simple arithmetic. If more than half of the children of intermarried coupled grew up to identify as Jews, we’d be ahead. But that’s not the case. And since it’s less than half (and I don’t know the exact statistics here), because of intermarriage our numbers will be shrinking.
Plus, think about the next generation — the children of the children (grandchildren) of intermarried couples. How likely are they to grow up to identify as Jews? A person like that likely has one half-Jewish parent (if intermarriage trends do not reverse). Being 1/4 Jewish, having just one Jewish grandparent, in a majority-gentile country — frankly, why would such a person identify as a Jew?
To me it’s fairly clear that, if our numbers are dramatically shrinking, our future is not looking good.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m _not_ pessimistic about the future of the Jewish people as a whole. Throughout our history, our numbers were cut down, but the rest survived and grew. For instance, if memory serves, in the final two centuries of Spanish Jewry, on two widely spaced occasions 2/3 of Jews were removed from the Jewish community (through murder and forced conversion). And yet there are many Sephardic Jews now. We _will_ survive.
7. First, what I (but maybe not others) take as a given — it is not in the interest of Jewry to _welcome_ interfaith marriage as a choice. (For at least the demographic reasons I’ve just given.) I think Jewish parents still are (all other things equal) happier to hear that that their son or daughter is marrying a fellow Jew than a gentile. So we do not welcome the choice. And I think that’s right.
But that’s not the same as not welcoming the intermarried couple, once intermarriage has happened. That, I think, is a far murkier matter.
It’s important to address how these two choices (how to treat intermarriage as a choice and how to treat intermarrieds as people) affect each other. It’s far from simple, but I can see at least a couple of effects, going each way.
On the one hand, if we decide to completely accept intermarried couples, that should increase intermarriage. (Not that this is necessarily the biggest contributing factor. But the opposite would be a disincentive.) Not having to worry about whether or not your new family will be accepted by your community as result of your choice to marry a gentile can’t help but make that choice easier.
On the other hand, the increase in the numbers of intermarried couples has been changing attitudes about intermarriage as a choice. For one thing, young people see intermarried couples next to them at the synagogue (or JCC) are that much more likely to see intermarriage as at least an option to consider; once upon a time few would have even thought about it (of course, it was a different world).
But maybe we are trying here to close the barn doors after the horse has fled? In several ways. For the already-intermarried, clearly it’s too late. Their parents should (in my opinion) have raised them so that they don’t make choose to intermarry. But they have intermarried. Not accepting these couples won’t reverse that choice. No one is running to divorce court when their community doesn’t accept them; if anything, they’re running away from the community. And, on the community-wide level, maybe it’s too late. We’ve got these intermarried couples; maybe we should include them, instead of pushing them away (it’s not like we are so many that we can “afford” to throw people away)? Maybe the trend of intermarriage is only going to accelerate (or at least not diminish), so that we’d better try to (for lack of a more graceful phrase) salvage what we can, and make the best of it? After all, not every intermarried couple wants to be actively part of the Jewish community; those who ask to be accepted are the ones who are trying. Maybe we should just make the best of it.
Maybe. But then we’d better start doing something dramatically differently. Because if trends continue, the choice to accept intermarried couples will have been but a hopeless rear-guard action. We would be trying to retain for Jewry not only people who have in a sense strayed (they were tempted by something on the outside), but also people who are not Jews (I’m not talking about converts — that’s an entirely separate issue), _and_ their children. Children who have one parent and two grandparents who are gentiles. They won’t be Jewish by default. Now, based on the question, we’re talking about children whose parents are trying to raise them Jewish, but even so. Their Jewish parent was also, presumably, raised Jewish. If we don’t start doing something better, or something new, we have less hope of retaining the next generation. The trend I wrote about in #6 would be in effect. And the better thing has got to be _way_ better, too. Because with a child of an intermarried couple, the challenge is greater — the pull of Jewry (in identity-formation) has to win out against not just a theoretical gentile majority of strangers, but against very real parent and grandparents. (I’m not saying it’s a personal conflict, or that it’s always zero-sum; but, when we’re talking about large numbers, some large number remains an active part of the Jewish community, and some large number does not.) Given that what we’re doing now is not working well on a smaller challenge, the new way would have to be waaaaaaaaaaay better.
So I have discussed this on the level of the entire (non-Orthodox) American Jewish community. But, of course, that’s not the level on which these choices get made. Individual Jewish parents choose what to say (or not say) to their children about intermarriage. At most, individual congregations form a culture of how they relate to intermarried couples. These choices, though they have huge Jewry-wide implications, are personal. Personally, I couldn’t possibly turn away from my synagogue a Jew who has intermarried. If his or her gentile spouse wants to be there, too, I couldn’t possibly turn her/him away.
For a comment on a post, I have written too much…
Well, readers, you have Leora to blame. Her thoughtful questions inspired me.
Alright, I’ll take a shot.
I think Jews of an older generation still remember what it was like being Jewish in a culture that was not necessarily supportive of that, and that need to embrace who you are and stick together. So I think, in having experienced some of those more negative events that may have come with being Jewish, that tends to bring people closer together, makes them really feel and own their identity. For younger Jews in the US today, most of us have never experienced any form of discrimination, any particular negativity toward who we are. We don’t remember any of that ugly past, many of us can’t even conceive of the idea of there not being an Israel, and what would mean for Jews all over the world. Their struggle is not really our struggle – in fact, their struggle doesn’t even really exist for us anymore. And that’s great and wonderful, for us. But it also leads to a diffusing of that strong sense of identity. When being Jewish is not necessarily something that you are, your history, what you were born to and carry against the world, and have no choice about, no matter how hard or unpleasant it may be to be that way, but instead is more of an identity you can feel comfortable and easy in, and almost feel like you can take on or shed as you like. Being Jewish starts to feel kind of like being a vegetarian, or an environmentalist, or a square-dancer – an identity you enjoy, share with others, have traditions and community around, but really could give up tomorrow if need be, and be fine without it. I don’t think we really ever feel that sense of “we are stuck with this Judaism, and will remain this no matter what, even if it becomes unpleasant sometimes, because it’s not really a matter of choice, it is who we are.” We never really had to face this idea that whether you like being a Jew or not, people will perceive you and treat you that way, and that’s just how it is. And so that changes our experience of the whole thing.
I think not having kids matter, too – we don’t really ever think about possibly having to actually do things to maintain our kids’ Jewish identity – but when people start to have kids, I’m not sure sure that this will really change. We’re so used to just having this identity, and not needing to do anything, that I think some will change that habit for their kids, but many may not.
On the question of synagogues, I think that comes into it, as well. I think a large truth is that we, unlike our parents, are really not “establishment people.” Our parents knew they had to form tight communities, and so they built them. But since we don’t have that need, we have a greater desire to really engage with our synagogues, our communities, our federations, and have them resonate with us and our ideals, and not just be a large, well-oiled institutional machine. Let’s be honest, most American Jews don’t speak Hebrew. So the synagogue services don’t speak to them. And the older Jews were glad to have synagogues that functioned in the “proper” way, and were there for them as centers of their community. But young Jews don’t really care about that, and want the synagogue experience to “speak to them,” and it doesn’t. The same with federations and similar things – older Jews were glad to have the major institution, that gather a ton of money, and did lots of major good things all over. Younger Jews don’t really care. They want to more personally engage with what is happening, ostensibly from “their community,” and sending a large check somewhere and receiving a magazine later that says “look at all the great things we did with your money” is really not a way in which they feel personally engaged with what’s going on, and they don’t care to do the “community showmanship” thing of “let’s see how much our community can build, that we all just contributed money to and didn’t really care about on a personal level. So I think that in future, all those “huge intitutions” will have to change. We are already seeing young Jews in many places like San Francisco, LA, and New York leaving the formal, big, stuffy, impersonal, “proper” synagogues in droves, and forming their own, small, personal minyans – they may want to do prayer and celebration and community, but they want to do it on their own terms, in a way that’s actually meaningful to them and they get to engage in, and not in the stuffy, “I came to this big building, and the rabbi mumbled something in front, and I felt I did my duty for the day” way.
I’ll touch on the most touchy subject you raise – intermarriage – last. Everybody hates to talk about this, because to be honest, there is nothing good or nice to say on any side, but we might as well talk about it, since the issue is not going away anywhere. Let’s assume for the second that our goal (and as a larger community, this must be our goal) is to assure a stable and thriving Jewish community in the future. That requires that we must keep Jews Jewish in future, and ideally keep their children, and more importantly, their children’s children, having a commitment to being Jewish. So let’s look at what intermarriage does for that. On the one hand, it might bring in more Jews to continue to be Jewish. I absolutely think that if we have already-intermarried couples that wish to come and join and raise their children Jewish, that we have an absolutely obligation to welcome them, as they are our flesh and blood. However, let’s look at what this “greater number” of potential Jews actually does for us. I think the more important mark of whether someone will contribute to our people remaining Jewish is not only whether he can raise his children to identify as Jews, go to Jewish schools, and all that. He has to raise his children Jewish enough that they themselves will try to marry Jewish and raise Jewish children. That is the only way that we get long term continuity, and not lose people after only one more generation. So if that is our yardstick – have you raised your children so that you will have Jewish grandchildren? – then that is the way we must look at intermarriage. Can intermarried families raise children who identify with their Jewish roots, and grow up in a Jewish community? Sure they can. Many have, and many will, and they do a great job of it. The question is – will those children tend to marry Jews themselves? From the statistics I’ve seen, seeing as their own parents intermarried and still managed to raise such wonderfully Jewish children, the children of these marriages are far more likely to be open to marrying outside the faith themselves (I mean, who’s going to tell them not to – their parents?) Once they do that, even with the best of intentions, what can we expect to see happen to their children? By now, these are people who have 1 Jewish grandparent. Another generation, and it could be 1 Jewish great-grandparent. Can we really in good conscience expect that these 1/8 Jewish people will really embrace their “Jewish roots” and Jewish family origins above all the others (Irish, Italian, French Canadian, what-have-you)? It doesn’t even make sense to me, and I am Jewish. This would be the story of one of my grandparents, our of several. One of my great-grandparents, out of many. It does not make sense to focus my identity on that side alone at that point. So from a continuity perspective, while some few may remain with the community, the rest will drop off within maybe not 1, but easily 2 generations. So will intermarriage continue to happen? Sure it will. But in welcoming these families when they come to us (which I believe we must do as much as we can), we have to also be aware that for the majority of such families, their descendants will not continue to be Jewish 2 generations hence. So will we try to encourage their children to marry Jewish? On what grounds? And in the long run, the Jewish people will likely continue to mostly be the children of those who in-married, vs. those who inter-married. This is one of those unfortunate instances where the math cuts against us.
On a positive note, though, I happen to be extremely positive on the future of the Jewish people as a whole. I believe that the Jewish people in Israel will thrive (they are already the world’s largest Jewish community, and growing), and I believe that the Orthodox community in the States will continue to grow. In the short run, the Russian-Jewish community in the US has shown a tremendous staying power of less inter-marriage and a commitment to their identity as well (if we as a community manage to retain their children). But non-Orthodox American Jews mostly seem to be splitting in 2 directions – some are becoming more and more “secular,” to the point of eventually disappearing into the mainstream culture, while others are moving closer to traditional Judaism in embracing a stronger Jewish identity. We really can’t know what that will shake out like for our community in future.
Leora – good luck tonight! I wish I could be there to support you, but I’m sure you’ll be terrific regardless!
Wow. Mike and Jenna – you two gave me so much to talk about tonight.
A few of your questions/comments stuck out to me, and lead me to more questions (I’m Jewish – can you blame me?).
First, both of you brought up the question of if a person was 1/4 Jewish or 1/8 Jewish, “why would such a person identify as a Jew?” Maybe our framework is wrong. Maybe we should be thinking about how to help people find that connection and passion and identity in Judaism so that they do CHOOSE to be Jewish even if they have only 1/4 or 1/8 Jewish. Maybe we should be looking at people’s intentions and interests on that kind of a personal level?
Second, I agree with both of you that once a family is intermarried, they need to be welcomed into our communities. The question of course then is, when they approach our rabbis for the rabbis to marry them, it would already seem to be “too late,” no? So why not embrace the interfaith couple then, as well? And have our rabbis marry them?
Mike made a really good point that “No one is running to divorce court when their community doesn’t accept them; if anything, they’re running away from the community.” The Jewish community only loses by not being welcoming, in my opinion.
I really was intrigued by Jenna’s point about being Jewish “starting to feel kind of like being a vegetarian, or an environmentalist, or a square-dancer – an identity you enjoy, share with others, have traditions and community around, but really could give up tomorrow if need be, and be fine without it.” How can we create that sense of Jewish identity for our younger generation of Jews who haven’t seen the discrimination suffered by past generations? Or how can we help today’s young Jews see anti-Israel sentiment all over the world as a threat to their Jewishness as well? The Arab world makes no distinction between the “Jews in Israel” and the “Jews in the rest of the world” so why should we?
And finally, I think the question of whether Jewish institutions are inviting enough is really interesting. I would like to find a synagogue that can be my institution, with a rabbi (unlike the lay-led minyanim in Boston, LA, etc) but I want an active 20s and 30s community at that synagogue (a la Temple Israel in Boston, for those folks who’ve been there). Is that too much to ask for in the Midwest?
Keep the comments coming folks. I’ll print out your answers to these questions and bring them tonight. Thanks!
Wow, Leora – more questions? I sure hope you’re a fast reader! 🙂
I will try my best to answer them in time for your talk. I will post my answers in sections, so you can hopefully have time to read before you head out.
You ask about the small-part-Jewish person, and whether we should/could focus on attracting them via means other than heritage. Essentially, whether we could “interest them in” or “sell them on” Judaism, even though they share a more tenuous connection to it. To me personally this raises 2 issues – 1 is that I think this kind of goes against how Judaism really works, and 2 is that I don’t think it would work.
Essentially, we would have to be saying to people, “look, you might not *have* to be Jewish by virtue of this being your entire background, and what you are whether you like it or not, but it’s so great to be Jewish, don’t you want to anyway?” I think this fails on multiple levels. To be honest, it’s just not *that great* to be Jewish. I don’t think the vast majority of Jews are Jews because it’s so wonderful. So much of Judaism is about being different, being an “other,” having this thing that is laid on you and your people throughout history – that it’s just not fun. Certainly not in a majority-gentile culture like ours. It’s easiest and nicest to be like other, normal people. To have Christmas and not be the weird kid in school and all that stuff. I love being Jewish, and I think being Jewish has enriched my life to no end, and I would never, ever give it up. But I’ll be very honest here – if I were not born Jewish, I would also never, ever take it up. I would not choose to have this hanging over me, or my children. Judaism has always worked by being something you do because of who and what you are. We are one people, with a single, shared story. We are “stuck together,” for lack of a better term, and we are in it together. Leora, you and I are the same, and are in this tribe, this family together, because we have shared roots, shared histories, a shared story. If we go back far enough, we might be from the same town. And so whether we like each other or not, we know we are in this together, and that’s a huge force in Judaism, that cannot survive in a “Judaism by choice” set up. I know that my grandparents, and their parents, and many others before them suffered and went through horrible things to keep themselves and their families Jewish, and I have a responsibility to not simply let that go, and to maintain that link, that line, that belonging to this tribe and this history, in my own family.
This would be like asking one of those 1/8-Cherokee Americans (of whom I know plenty), to identify as Cherokee, and really embrace that they are Native Americans, that is their heritage, and they want to take on those names, and live that life, with those rituals and sacred ideas and actions. A few might think it’s cool, they might get a Cherokee name, or participate in a sweat lodge or two, maybe even take up beading as a hobby. But we cannot really expect that any large proportion of these people will suddenly decide that yes, they really are Cherokee, that is their identity, and this is going to be the thing they really identify with. Because they have 7 other “identities” and histories pulling on them, that are far, far easier to embrace as a way of life and identification. Perhaps in a majority-Cherokee country, things would be different (as they are for part-Jews in Israel), but as long as we are the minority culture, this wouldn’t stand a chance.
My mom told me once (and I never forgot it) that they didn’t stay Jewish because they wanted to remember, but because “they never let us forget.” I think that’s a huge element for a lot of people – being Jewish, part of the Jewish people, is what we are, what we have always been and will always be, with no choice to simply forget it and let it go. And we know that we are born with this thing, and it is with us forever. Once it becomes a choice, it changes the whole dynamic and experience of being Jewish, and I don’t think it’s a choice many would make, no matter how fun, exciting, and close-knit our community is.
For your second question, on should rabbis marry interfaith couples that come to them, ready to get married.
I think that’s a really interesting question. I’ll preface this by saying that I think this is a really personal choice for a rabbi to make, so what follows is entirely my feelings on it, and not necessarily something that can be made into policy in any sense.
So like I think we both agree, we absolutely must welcome
already-intermarried couples who come to us wanting to be Jewish, and an active part of the Jewish community. Certainly if they have children they would like to raise Jewish, but in my opinion, even if they don’t.
So you’re right, the obvious question is – why not marry them in the first place?
Like I said, I think this is a very tough, and very personal, choice for a rabbi, but here is why it gives me pause:
Once people are already married, whether it was a good idea at the time or not, it’s a fait accompli – already done, and we might as well make the best of it. So if a couple is married, we need to do what we can to support them, and hopefully help them find as much of a home in the Jewish community as we can.
On the other hand, to marry them would be to contribute to the creation of that situation in the first place. Now, would they get married anyway? Sure they would. But does that mean that you should participate in making that happen?
For instance, let’s say you have friends who you are convinced are going to end up divorced shortly after they marry, or will be miserable in their marriage. Once they are already married, of course you will do your best to help them make the best of the situation, and be as happy as possible together. But if you truly are convinced that they are making a mistake, should you really participate in marrying them yourself? It might be symbolic, but still – how much do you want to contribute to something that you believe is not a good idea?
So if we assume that intermarriage is not a good idea (and if a rabbi thinks it is, then this whole thing is a moot point), then even if he would try to make the best of the situation once it’s done, he might not want to participate in or actively contribute to making it happen in the first place. A sort of “you guys are in this on your own” sort of statement.
The other, and I think smaller, issue is this idea of “well, they might promise to raise Jewish children, so what then?” Now, we are clearly in this case talking about people where neither partner has chosen to convert, so clearly, the non-Jewish partner is choosing to definitely retain their own peoplehood and religious identity. And in light of that, how would we really ascertain their intentions in any meaningful way? They say they’ll do it today, they change their minds tomorrow, they’re not even really ready to commit… How can we really expect rabbis to parse all that? How do you look at someone, who is, say, an Irish Catholic, and intends to remain so, but is saying he intends to raise Jewish kids, with a full commitment to their Jewish peoplehood and identity? What does that even mean, exactly?
A wedding I attended once comes to mind, where the interfaith couple was being married by a priest. I don’t know what they told that priest, but when it came to the vows, and the “promise to raise your children with Jesus” part, the (Jewish) groom, just sort of mumbled something indistinct, which certainly didn’t sound like agreement to me. I don’t know what the priest expected, but I would be very uncomfortable with the whole situation if I were him (especially since the Catholic bride gave her definite, solid ascent).
Since in Judaism, a marriage is final, we can’t really treat it as a provisional “if you mean it yes, if not, we take it away” thing. Once it’s done, it’s done. And if you really don’t know what people are getting into, and whether they even really understand what they’re committing to themselves, and you’re really not sure whether it’s a good idea, I’m not so sure that rabbis should officiate at, and essentially contribute to, the creation of that sort of thing (however much they might support the people and families after the fact).
(More to come, I promise).
Alright, finally I want to address your question on how synagogues can be more welcoming to younger Jews.
(I know I’m skipping one of your questions, but that’s because I really don’t know the answer to that one. If I think of anything, I’ll let you know! But that’s a tough one.)
To be honest, I may not be the best person to answer this question, since I have participated in many lay-led minyans and congregations for years, and personally, I happen to prefer that structure, and rather like not having a formal rabbi. But I’ll give it my best shot.
I think that congregations have to remember that older people, who are incredibly busy with their lives, careers, houses, children, parents, and all the other demands made on them, might prefer to not get too involved, have everything just done for them, and be able to just show up, participate, and go home. On the other hand, younger adults have fewer of those responsibilities, and often have the time (and are taking the time) to engage with their identities and their beliefs in more robust ways.
So I think to engage younger Jews, they need to be given more of an opportunity to not feel that their spiritual life at the synagogue is just “done” for them, but to be able to engage with it much more actively. Perhaps have more opportunity to, say, study with the rabbi, or discuss theology. Perhaps have more of a chance to really participate in some of the ecumenical decisions that perhaps get made – the structure of a service, or the prayer books used, or the rituals observed. I think for many, that might give them the personal engagement they seek, and allow them to really feel that they have a spiritual home in the community.
I think you’re absolutely right that a critical mass of other young Jews is a must. But I think the way to achieve that may be what I mentioned above.
Certainly, certain activities tend to appeal to young Jews, as well – the ability to have a peer group, build friendships, perhaps young adult Shabbat and holiday dinners – things that build community and friendship. Song or dance oriented services or events I believe can hold a definite attraction, as well. Not necessarily using the same melodies as usual, but holding services with more interesting, perhaps more modern or more exciting melodies (I’ve seen Carlebach be very popular), allowing dancing on the floor during nigunim – all of that stuff can be very popular with young Jewish adults (especially those who have spent time in Jewish camps, and miss that kind of atmosphere). Of course, the chance to meet other young single Jews tends to be a big draw, too (one synagogue in San Francisco is famous for its monthly young adult Shabbat services, and they are a well known singles scene at those services – and they are mobbed with hundreds of young Jews every month).
To be honest, a more young adult-friendly schedule wouldn’t hurt, either. Many synagogues are young children or elderly oriented in their timings. Many young adults would find later services on Friday nights, and definitely later services on Saturday mornings, to be a real help (9:00 AM might be nice if you have a 3 year old, but not when you’re 23).
That’s just my personal opinion, but I hope it helps.
Leora, when I read this I thought you were such a perfect choice for the panel! I can’t wait to hear how it went; I’m sure the conversation was fascinating.
I know it’s after-the-fact, but as a mom I obviously want my grand-kids to be Jewish– I have visions of baking challah together on Fridays, getting dressed up for Purim, etc. BUT first and first-most, I want my kids to be able to marry whomever they fall in love with and have a happy marriage and life. It breaks my heart to think of my kids falling in love with anyone– whether it’s someone of the same or different faith, race, gender, etc, etc– and feel unwelcome or not allowed to have a happy life. Marriage and life are really, really hard and challenging. Both are made wonderful (and easier) with the right partner, who can sometimes be difficult to find. I would hope that family and religion would welcome and support their children. I know *I* would. No matter what.
It’s definitely not too late to comment on these important issues! Keep the conversation going!
(I’ll add in my thoughts after work) 🙂
Thank you for bringing up that point. I think that’s an important issue to talk about.
I think we can all agree that in the personal arena, once you have children (or friends, or what-have-you) who have intermarried, absolutely you obligated to try and support them as best as you can, and try to help them be as happy and successful in their marriage as possible. I think few people would argue against supporting our friends or families, whatever their choices. It think it is also not for us to judge those choices, or those making them – we all walk a different path in life, and we don’t know what road brought people to the choices and lives they have made for themselves.
That said, I feel that, even as we support those in our communities who make any choice (that is what being one people is all about, after all), there is still room to consider, in a larger, community-wide sense, what will help us survive as a people, and what will not. So as a community, we can then choose to support, or try to stem, certain things. For instance, we may decide that people marrying too early would be a threat to our community (not likely), and we would then try to teach and advocate against it, and take actions to try and prevent it, even while certainly accepting and supporting those individuals in our lives and our communities who choose to do it anyway. So I think that has been the focus of my remarks – what is likely to benefit us a wider community, and is that something worth worrying about on a community level.
The other thing that I have noticed is that I feel that we, as a community, focus too much on the “but we must support our children if it happens to them” question, and I feel that that interferes with a straight discussion on prevention. Basically, because we’re all so focused on the fact that well, we just want our kids to be happy, and if they’re already in love, we wouldn’t stop them, etc., etc., we forget to step back and say, OK, that’s all fine and good, but how do we prevent that situation occurring in the first place? And can we just admit that it’s not a desirable one (while still welcoming and supporting those of us who have made it)?
Here is the thing that puzzles me: many of us act as if “falling in love” is something that just happens to people. They’re not involved in any way, it’s just a random and immediate accident, like getting splashed by a passing car. You bump into some guy on the street, and “pouf!” you’re in love! I mean, let’s face it – things just don’t happen that way. Sure, you meet people. You might kinda like one of them. At that point, most of the time, you make a *conscious decision* to perhaps go out for coffee with them, perhaps pursue a potential relationship, perhaps act on your atraction. The love develops later – it’s not some mud you just fall into. Yes, there are exception, and I am very aware of them (I’ve certainly been there myself), but most of the time, being so in love you want to marry this person and spend your life with them takes time, and conscious effort and conscious choices along the way. And so I don’t think it’s too great a burden to consider what those choices would mean – early along the way. And maybe not do those early things that might lead to the point where you’re so in love that your mom just has to grin and bear it at your wedding. And I don’t really see anything wrong with encouraging our kids (and ourselves) to consider those elements when making these choices.
Technically, your kids could fall in love with a married man, as well. And yes, that’s something that should stop them. Not everything falls by the wayside in the path of love (no matter what Hollywood says). And they could just happen to like a married man, too – and I happen to think that they should stop, and not pursue that attraction, because “it would be a bad idea to fall in love with this person.” So why can’t the same thought process apply if the man’s, say, Catholic? Perfectly nice, and perfectly lovable, and a perfectly great guy – but in some way not for you, if it’s important to you to build a Jewish life for yourself and for your family.
It’s funny that there are plenty of things on which we think it’s not a good idea, but we would support our kids through it if it happened to them, and we are comfortable advising our kids against those things. Teenage pregnancy comes to mind, or drug use. Would I support a daughter of mine if she came home pregnant at 16? Sure I would! Would I like her to be in that situation? Absolutely not! And while I realize that I would give her all my support should it happen, I would also feel perfectly free advising her against this eventuality, and trying to raise her so as to avoid it, and encouraging community action that might help her avoid it, too. This approach works for so many things. I had extremely open-minded parents myself, and they were always very open about the fact that no matter what happened to us, they would support us and be there for us. But they were also extremely open about the fact that they didn’t want these things to happen to us, and the things they saw as “acceptable” and “not,” whether or not they would support us after the fact.
But somehow, when it comes to intermarriage, we seem, as a community to be unable to make this distinction. We seem so caught up in the idea that if we say intermarriage is not OK, then we are saying that we won’t support our kids when they end up in it, and so we say nothing at all, until it’s way too late. I don’t really see how that follows. Yes, we support someone’s not-great decisions – I would support my child if they were in love and marrying a gambling addict, too – but I don’t see why I should not advise my child, well in advance, to avoid ending up in situations where they are that entangled with a gambling addict.
One final thought (and then I’m done, I promise!) We hear a lot of talk about how people should just be happy in their marrige, and happy with their spouse, and it’s more important that he’s a nice guy, and all of that stuff. But assuming that it is important to you to build an actively Jewish life, and actively raise Jewish children in a Jewish home (it’s not for everyone), a non-Jewish spouse is an impediment to that (though not insurmoutable), and is therefore an added unnecessary source of conflict in the marrige. Just like a gambling addiction would be. Perfectly nice guy – big potential source of conflict or dissatisfaction, and something I think is a valid consideration. And once there are kids involved, there are other, and more long term, issues, as well. You can divorce a jerk husband. A husband who baptises your kids, or kids who choose to follow’s “daddy’s faith” – that’s something you have to live with forever.
Jenna, those are excellent points and I completely agree that people should talk to their kids (over and over and over again) about the things that are important to them. That’s the heart of education and good family relationships. The home is, for sure, the right place for families to have these conversations.
I do, however, think that “policy changes” like rabbis not marrying interfaith, and Judaism as an institution teaching against it, etc. crosses the line into forcing people to believe what we believe. We can teach and model for our kids what our heart’s desires are. But then we need to teach them how to make those decisions for themselves.
IE: If you believe it is so, tell them how hard it might be to raise children in an interfaith household so they go into their decisions with their eyes closed. But don’t make those decisions for them.
Believing that the option should be there for those who choose it is not the same thing as being pro-“it.” As in, I’m certainly not “pro-divorce” but I sure am glad that the option is there for those in a marriage that isn’t working.
I guess I just don’t see that “taking away the choice” will yield anything positive in the end. You can’t actually force anyone to do anything; nor should you want to.
As for the hollywood love thing– well written point and i love the getting splashed by a car analogy. although it does, indeed, feel that way! 🙂
You’re absolutely right – these discussing do first and foremost belong in the home.
But at this point, the discussion is being had – a lot – on what should the Jewish community as a body do or say about intermarriage. Do we think that intermarriage is good or bad for the Jewish community’s continuity as a whole, and what should we do if we think it’s not good?
I think that’s a very valid thing for a community to consider, if it is interested in its own survival, and facing rapidly dwindling numbers.
I absolutely agree that people must maintain the choice to do whatever they like. I am generally very pro “people being free to choose to do whatever they like,” in pretty much all instances.
But in this case we’re not really talking about any sort of large scale “policy change.” Historically, most rabbis did not officiate in mixed marriages, and Judaism has generally always frowned on the practice. The question is, what do we care to do about it now that it’s here, and so very common (and getting more so every day). Theoretically, we could choose to do nothing, and simply say that those who will care to remain Jewish will, and if we lose the rest, so be it. Personally, I think that would be a shame, but it is one possible way to go. Or we can try to admit that this is a problem for us as a community, and try to decide what we can do about it.
I also don’t think that it is invalid for rabbis to choose not to support the creation of something they see as problematic, either from a religious or a communitarian point of view. People are still free to get married – why should an individual rabbi be required to officiate that marriage?
And I think it is certainly valid for rabbis (as religious leaders) to determine and teach that they and their religious communities are for or against certain things. That’s what they do every day – that’s really what being a religious community is all about – that you all believe a certain set of principles, and yes, rabbis tell people that you’re “supposed” to believe these things if you are part of this community (whatever those things are for each community). Not everyone does, of course, but there are the guiding principles of a religious community, and they define and teach them every day. I don’t really see why this one principle is any different. Now it’s the beauty of Judaism that you can be a Jew, and still be free not to believe any of the things that any rabbis say, and you are still a Jew just by virtue of your birth (I certainly know plenty of atheist Jews, and they are no less Jewish for it), but that does not mean that rabbis cannot stand in their synagogues and teach that you’re supposed to believe in one God (even though are you free to choose not to).
So I don’t think we’re talking about forcing anyone, or taking away any choice here – we all know that in the United States, you are free to do or believe what you like. The real question is what do we want to believe and teach and try to create for our communities and our children to help grow and perpetuate our communities and their survival and vibrancy (and not end up with a United States in which only ultra-Orthodox Jews, or Jews who reject the gentile world fully, exist, and the rest have embraced the rest of the world so much, and mixed in so much, that they don’t exist as a distinct community, with a distinct set of Jewish values, at all anymore).
I am not in my 20’s or 30’s (anymore) so I can’t really comment on some of these questions, but I do want to share my thoughts about the intermarriage question.
I am an intermarried mother of two Jewish girls. My husband was raised Catholic. He has identified as an atheist since I married him, and still does. While he agreed from our second date (really!) that he was fine with raising children Jewish, at first, he felt very uncomfortable in Jewish communal settings. He felt certain that people were ignoring him because he wasn’t Jewish. Over time, after a wedding by a reform rabbi (that left half of his family saying ‘I wish I could have had a Jewish wedding!’), after his being welcome to be a full participant in our baby namings in shul and our rabbi-led simchat bat, and many other moments of hands reached out to him by rabbis, congregants and educators, he now joins us by choice every shabbat at kiddush and puts up our sukkah. He is the parent of a day school student and one about to enter day school, and never for a moment balked at this expense, because he feels good about being part of a Jewish family, even if he himself is not Jewish.
Incidentally, I would have married my basherte no matter what I expected the reaction to be from the community. It was my love of Judaism, and my many positive experiences starting in childhood and well into my 20’s and 30’s, that made me committed to raising my own children as Jews.
here’s a dvar torah i wrote about what a difference in our Jewish lives it made for us to be weclomed, not shunned or “tolerated.” http://homeshuling.wordpress.com/2009/05/09/dvar-torah-parshat-emor/
I just want to commend everyone for very thoughtful responses to very thought provoking questions. As a Jewish communal worker who is deeply commmitted to the future of the Jewish people, Judaism, Israel and the Jewish community, reading these comments are very helpful and encouraging. I am very interested in finding new ways to engage more Jews and especially young Jews and would welcome anyone to contact me at the United Jewish Fund and Council to discuss ideas to reach younger members of the community. We are fortunate to have Leora and Royee who were on the panel involved with UJFC’s Young Leadership program. Please feel free to contact me at the United Jewish Fund and Council (651) 695-3185to discuss ideas that you have.
Leora- Thank you for your involvement!